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Decoding the Wisconsin Polls

Some people have expressed confusion about the various polls that are now out over the dispute in Wisconsin, but I don’t think they’re all that difficult to unravel.

First, toss out those polls that used biased question wording or that were issued by partisan groups. Yes, there’s a difference between an honest partisan poll and a dishonest one. But unless the question wording was transparently slanted or there were other manifest flaws with the poll, determining which is which usually requires making a lot of assumptions about the integrity of the group behind the poll, and those aren’t calls that I’m usually comfortable making.

If we were looking at polls of elections, we could allow for a little more leeway, since it’s relatively straightforward to make statistical adjustments for potential bias. But that’s much harder to do for polls on policy matters, and my preference is just to ignore the whole lot. (I will say that I think Rasmssen Reports polls ought to be regarded as partisan as a default.)

Eliminating those polls leaves about two data points that are of interest. First, a Gallup poll released yesterday that finds that while the public has ambivalent feelings toward public sector unions, they say they oppose any move by their state to eliminate collective bargaining rights by about a 2:1 margin. And second, a recent Clarus Group poll which shows fairly negative feelings toward public-sector unions; by about a 2:1 margin, people in the Clarus poll think government employees should not be represented by unions.

Mark Blumenthal has discussed some of the differences between Clarus and other polls on public-sector unions. Part of the reason that they may have found more negative feelings is because the Clarus question wording mentioned unions negotiating for “higher pay, benefits and pensions” (emphasis added) instead of simply “pay, benefits and pensions”, which may have influenced the responses. Unlike the Rasmussen Reports poll, however, I would not call this choice of question wording “biased”; it is within the boundaries of reasonable options that a pollster might have picked from.

What’s clearer, however, is that views on unions have been declining in general — as often happens when the unemployment rate is high — and public-sector unions tend to be viewed more negatively than private-sector ones.

But there are an awful lot of issues on which the American public has ambivalent feelings, but nevertheless objects to rights being taken away. People might think that alcohol has a negative influence on society, for instance, but I’d imagine that relatively few want to ban it. Even on an issue like abortion, this pattern can sometimes be observed — about as many Americans describe themselves as “pro-life” as “pro-choice”, but polls generally show a clear majority opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade.

I realize that union organizing and collective bargaining rights are not exactly the same as those issues, but the Gallup poll suggests that the same pattern may hold. The public might not be enamored of public sector unions, but by about a 2:1 margin, they think they have the right to exist.

I suspect, then, that the near-term political risks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are mostly to the downside. Part of it is that, as in debates over the budget at the federal level, there is an element of what chess players call zugzwang: since any specific solution over deficit reduction is likely to be fairly unpopular, the first mover or perceived aggressor is often at a disadvantage.

The Gallup poll, however, suggests that while reducing benefits and pay for government workers is somewhat unpopular (it is opposed by a 53-44 margin), reducing their collective bargaining rights is much more clearly so (it is opposed 61-33). And Mr. Walker’s budget proposal aims to do some of both.

What about the long-term implications of the Republican position, which has become much more explicitly anti-union? That is a more complicated question, and something we may aim to look at in future posts.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.